Rarely does the response to a State of the Union address create more buzz than the presidential pontification itself. But that's what happened with the sharp lesson in populist economics delivered by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. Webb's indictment of the Iraq War was direct and powerful, but it was his use of the language of class conflict in discussing domestic policy that really had the country buzzing after January 23. Talk-radio host Laura Ingraham referred to Webb's response, warning the National Review Institute Conservative Summit, "The party that comes off as the party that represents the American worker best is the party that wins in 2008."
Republicans are right to fear Webb's words. Blunt talk of America "drifting apart along class lines" and the observation that "it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day" connect with voters soured on the GOP, as even George W. Bush implicitly acknowledged when he told a Wall Street crowd a week later that corporate boards "need to pay attention" to executive compensation. As proven by Webb's upset victory in November, and the victories of Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Montana's Jon Tester, candidates willing to break with the bosses can draw working-class voters out of the clutches of moralizing right-wingers and back into the Democratic fold.
Now Democrats need to prove with deeds that match Webb's rhetoric just which side they're on. With moves to raise the minimum wage and tax Big Oil, House Democrats have taken some significant steps. Senate Democrats have done the same with efforts to raise taxes on executive pay. But much more is possible.
Take the question of what to do about healthcare, our most critical domestic issue. George W. Bush's answer in his speech was to tax workers whose employers offer high-quality plans ("gold-plated" in Bush's snide reference) in order to cover a small number of the currently uninsured, while offering the wealthy yet another new tax deduction if they buy their own plans.
The Democrats should counter Bush with a plan that's already backed by seventy-eight House members, HR 676, the National Health Insurance Act, introduced by Representatives John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich. Some 225 labor unions back the bill, which would expand Medicare to every US resident. A tax on the top 5 percent of income earners, among other measures, would pay for the program.
Too radical? Consider that in September, an ABC News/Kaiser Family Foundation/USA Today survey found that 56 percent of Americans would prefer a government-run universal healthcare system "like Medicare" to our current system.
Or take the matter of education. The median income of workers with a BA or higher is about double that of those with only a high school diploma. But as Jeff Madrick noted here recently, thanks to rising costs and inadequate aid, the march to higher graduation rates has stalled in America as other countries have surpassed us. How should Congress respond? It could start with the plan, proposed by Edward Kennedy, chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, to forgive all college loans if graduates work in public service for ten years.
There's more. How about dusting off legislation to deny corporations tax deductions when executive compensation exceeds twenty-five times the pay of the lowest-paid full-time worker? How about responding to Bush's request for fast-track authority on free-trade agreements by requiring the inclusion of labor, environmental and human rights standards in any new deals?
Senator Webb invoked the example of Teddy Roosevelt's progressive reforms in the early twentieth century. That's a good place for Democrats to look for inspiration in turning Webb's message into enthusiasm for their party in 2008. More important, they can begin work now on an economic program that, to borrow Webb's phrase, will insure that the benefits of our immense wealth are "properly shared among all Americans."